WV Civil Rights Lawyer

Police Misconduct, Civil Rights Law

So you want to sue the police, Part II

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled, So you want to sue the police . . . . , and it has had an overwhelming number of reads.  Well, it’s been 8 years since then, and I’ve learned a lot  I’ve tried cases since then.  Appealed cases.  Settled cases.  Won cases.  Lost cases.  I’ve reviewed probably thousands of allegations.  Since this appears to continue to be a popular topic, here is part II.

  •  Have documentation.  When people call our office about allegations of police misconduct, and/or civil rights violations, we first ask them if they have any documentation.  Here is what we need:
    • Police Report.  This could be what is referred to in West Virginia as a “Criminal Complaint.”  Or, it could be any other official report containing a narrative, or version of the events, written by a police officer.
    • Medical Records.  If the complaint is that injuries were caused by the police, we would like to see documentation of those injuries.  Was there a hospital visit, or doctor’s office visit pertaining to the injuries?  If so, you are entitled to the records, and we will need to review them.
    • Photographs.  Again, if the complaint is that injuries were caused by the police, we would like to see photographs of the injuries.
    • Video Footage.  It goes without saying that if video footage exists of the incident, we want to see it.  It may be the case that footage exists, but the police are in possession of the video.  In West Virginia, and most states, there is a right on behalf of private citizens to request that footage.  This is called a Freedom of Information Act Request, or FOIA request.   If criminal charges were filed, a defendant is going to have a right to receive a copy of the footage.
  • Don’t Wait.  In West Virginia, you generally have 2 years to file a lawsuit based on a civil rights violation.  Other states may have different statutes of limitations periods, even though they are all the same type of claim under federal law.  In some cases it could be less.  Don’t wait 2 years and then call us the day before the statute of limitations expires.  We will not take the case.  Yes, people do this.
    • Witnesses.  Witness recollection of incidents gets worse over time.  Witnesses may die and their testimony may be lost forever.
    • Evidence.  Some evidence disappears with time.  911 records and transcripts may disappear in as little as 30 days if not requested.
  • Do not make a formal complaint to the police.  At least not without acting through competent legal counsel.  Police should never investigate themselves. But that’s exactly what happens in West Virginia, and many other states.  In regards to the West Virginia State Police, in particular, and other larger agencies, this is a huge mistake that people make.  Why?
    • Witness Intimidation.  If an individual makes a formal complaint, for instance to the State Police, they are presented with a piece of paper they are forced to sign which warns them that they will be prosecuted if they are found to have given false information.  This is purely a threat meant to having a chilling effect and to scare off victims of police misconduct who would otherwise complain.
    • Interrogation.  The next thing that happens is, an “investigator” from the agency will want to interview you.  This is not an actual unbiased interview.  This is an interrogation.  They will, perhaps secretly, record the questioning.  Without a lawyer present, a detective will perform an interrogation. They will ask you leading questions.  They will essentially take your deposition, but without your lawyer present.  You will not be given a copy of the recording.  The agency will save it, and later use the recording against you in court.  I have seen it happen many times.
    • Building a defense.  The “investigator” will obtain information from you – not for the purposes of determining whether the complaint is justified, but for the purposes of undermining your allegations.  If you tell them a particular person witnessed the event, they can now go confront that person.  They can tailor their defense to counter your exact allegations.  I am generalizing.  Of course some investigators are honest and will do the right thing.  But for the purposes of protecting yourself, you should assume they are not.
    • Photographs.  If the complaint pertained to excessive force, or resulted in injuries, the “investigator” will take photographs of you.  These photographs may be taken at a time when injuries have become less visible, or healed.  They may be taken in such a way as to minimize their appearance, rather than to document the truth.
  • Call an attorney experienced in civil rights law as soon as possible.  You can’t call just any lawyer for a civil rights case.  The area of civil rights, and in particular police misconduct, is a small niche area of the practice of law. Most licensed lawyers will be inexperienced in civil rights law.  There are only a handful of competent civil rights plaintiffs’ lawyers in West Virginia who regularly handle these types of cases.  I often get referrals from other lawyers across West Virginia who encounter clients with civil rights complaints. There are special aspects of the law in these types of cases that have nothing to do with automobile accident cases, or even criminal defense cases.  Make sure whichever lawyer you call can demonstrate a record of successfully handling these types of cases.  For years, I have been teaching other lawyers, government leaders, and law enforcement administrators, seminars on the law of police liability and civil rights litigation.

March 29, 2018 - Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Police, Police Misconduct, Searches and Seizures, Trials

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